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Thirty students break out into groups of six each to discuss whether insurance companies should have access to an individual’s genetic tests, whether such genetic testing information should be collected in a DNA bank, and whether society should have the right to require mandatory genetic testing under certain circumstances.
Students engage in these difficult dialogues twice a week in a course called Social and Ethical Dimensions of Biotechnology, co-taught by Biology Professor Leilani Miller and Margaret McLean, associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and religious studies lecturer.
Many of the ethical questions students dwell over bubble out of religious traditions.
“There is no one way to look at these issues … it’s very pluralistic,” says Miller. “The students who are ‘techno-optimists’ come with the attitude that technology can solve every problem, but we want them to understand that that’s not always the case … and not everyone shares their religious or cultural perspective.”
As they look at pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, the development of AIDS vaccines, gene therapy, genetically modified crops, and informed consent scenarios, students constantly evaluate the ethical responsibilities and implications of cutting-edge technology.
“We ask them questions like what the ethical imperative is to develop AIDS vaccines for African countries when we aren’t even able to provide healthcare to all U.S. citizens,” explains McLean. “What’s our obligation beyond our borders? The students use ethical principles, guided by their moral compass and religious beliefs, to arrive at ethically defensible conclusions.”
For Michelle Pesce ’09, it was these discussions that spurred her decision to pursue a graduate degree in bioscience at Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in Claremont, Calif. “I discerned that I enjoyed discussing and thinking about complex scientific and medical issues that impact society and that I enjoyed being an advocate for such causes,” she says. “The passion and planning that went into this class made a lasting impression on me. Ethics is a core value in my graduate program—a value that was instilled in me permanently at Santa Clara.”
The impact of this course has, indeed, been far-reaching. Miller says it has expanded the way she views the world. “It’s not about studying science in isolation or ethics in isolation. It’s about seeing all the different perspectives and realizing that all of them have their own justifications that need to be respected,” she says. “I can no longer disconnect science from the ethical issues it engenders … they’re completely intertwined. And that’s what students end up discovering, too.”
Can beauty be found in suffering? Is it rational to believe in miracles? These and other, seemingly paradoxical questions fill the classroom with intense—sometimes heated—discourse in some of the most unexpected courses offered at Santa Clara.
Two highly respected deep thinkers in SCU’s theology school and engineering department challenge a widespread belief that science and religion are essentially unrelated areas of human inquiry.
If ever there were a perfect example of kindred spirits, it would be found with Aleksandar Zecevic, a professor of electrical engineering, and Alejandro García-Rivera, a theologian and faculty member of the Jesuit School of Theology (JST). Their main connection leads them to align with the Jesuit outlook that every dimension of creation is sacred and therefore no area of study or line of inquiry is off limits.
Both men are nicknamed “Alex,” have impressive science backgrounds, share a lifelong passion for aesthetics, and are intent on revealing ways in which concepts that appear to be self-contradictory may, in reality, express a number of possible truths. They’ve both designed innovative courses with a primary goal of creating autonomous thinkers.
The two met three years ago, when Zecevic recruited members for a joint JST-SCU colloquium on science, art, and religion with colleagues from JST, the School of Engineering, and the College of Arts and Sciences. In their monthly meetings, the interdisciplinary reading group delves into various aspects of aesthetics. Where most of us think of aesthetics or beauty in terms of form, order, and symmetry, Zecevic explains that it is the mix of order and disorder that characterizes nature, and without disorder it would be a boring universe devoid of novel occurrences.
Both men employ the Socratic style of teaching, a form of inquiry and debate that serves to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate ideas. The focus is on giving students questions, not answers, and the openness of the Jesuit way of teaching naturally allows the needed space for students to engage the big questions.
Zecevic uses his recently completed manuscript, Chaos Theory, Metamathematics and the Limits of Knowledge: A Scientific Perspective on Theology, Aesthetics, and Ethics, as the primary text in his course of the same name. He says, “Many times in science, especially when you have no direct experience of the concepts you are dealing with, you resort to aesthetic criteria … you go with what looks the most elegant mathematically.”
In his 2009 book, The Garden of God: A Theological Cosmology, García-Rivera uses the cultivation of a garden as a metaphor for man’s relation to the cosmos—a garden not so much designed as discovered. He reminds us that “aesthetic insight is needed if we are to discover the garden of God in the cosmos.” He adds, “I believe wholeheartedly that we must begin to see the interconnectedness of the world, to grasp its complexity, even if our intellectual traditions have conditioned us to seek a different type of grasping.” He often uses the term “interlacing,” which he describes as the artful weaving of various perspectives across disciplines to gain an insight greater than any of its components.
García-Rivera teaches the course Theology and Human Suffering at JST. “I always start the class by saying it’s hard to teach a class where everybody’s an expert … because who hasn’t suffered?” At times, he says he may be the naïve one in the classroom. It can become tense when students from all parts of the world share experiences. Many have known great turmoil, endured torture, or witnessed the deaths of loved ones; others have struggled with serious illness and loss. “Students come back to me years after and tell me it’s the one course that’s helped them the most,” he says. What makes this class unique is that it’s based on the principle of the cosmic nature of suffering and the beauty of suffering. But how can one find beauty in suffering? “That is our challenge in theology, especially today,” says García-Rivera. “If you cannot see beauty in suffering there’s just one alternative left … and that’s despair.”
Why should a student care about this intersection of science and religion? Zecevic offers a rationale from the engineering course he teaches on science and religion, in which students are faced with the question: “What can one rationally believe?” Students with a religious background may wonder, for example, if what they learn in the sciences is compatible with their beliefs. Students in a technical discipline might ask whether certain counterintuitive theological claims (such as miracles) are logically acceptable. As part of their coursework, the students write candid, sometimes beautiful reflections on these questions, often transforming themselves in the process.
“This is not something that you are likely to see in any other engineering class,” says Zecevic. “It’s wise to question … Jesuits are good at that.”
(In the midst of producing this publication, on December 13, 2010, we were saddened to hear that Alejandro García-Rivera passed away. He was a respected colleague, beloved teacher, and one of the most important and influential voices among the circles of theology and science.)
Adesola Oshinoiki ’12 thought Islam was oppressive toward women until she interviewed some Turkish Islamic women as part of her Religions in Silicon Valley class.
Established in 2003, Santa Clara’s Local Religion Project afforded Oshinoiki the opportunity to step outside her comfort zone.
“In Silicon Valley, we have a unique opportunity to study global cultures and religious traditions,” says Religious Studies Associate Professor Philip “Boo” Riley. “We want to mine these opportunities and find out what happens when people of different faiths interact.”
For Oshinoiki, it meant shedding assumptions based on media reports.
In her conversations with Muslim women, she discovered that they have the same rights as men when it comes to divorce, that they choose to wear the hijab (a head covering), and not every Muslim woman is as devout as the next.
“Through this experience, I’ve learned to keep an open mind,” says the 21-year-old computer engineering major. “I have also acquired a newfound appreciation and respect of another person’s religious beliefs.”
Professor Riley sums it up: “The Local Religion Project demystifies complicated abstract theology. Students get access to ordinary people and the role religion plays in their day-to-day lives. It provides students with real context for theological thinking and I think it pushes us to reflect on the humanity of religion.”